A tale of two prayer breakfast speeches

On February 3, 2021, the day before the National Prayer Breakfast, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called for Joe Biden to endorse the separation of church at the breakfast. Here is a taste of the release:

“For four years, we watched Donald Trump pander to white Christian nationalists and unveil cruel policies that misused religious freedom to override critical civil rights protections, health care access and protections for people who use social services. We hope that at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Joe Biden establishes a new course.

“President Biden should draw a sharp contrast with his predecessor by endorsing separation of religion and government as the guarantee of religious freedom for all of us. He should make clear that his vision of religious freedom is one that doesn’t exclude anyone, including nonbelievers. And he should clarify that religious freedom is a shield meant to protect us, not a sword to cause harm to others.

“The National Prayer Breakfast and events like it are often described as opportunities to unite everyone under the banner of faith. What many Americans don’t realize is that the sponsor of The National Prayer Breakfast, The Family, is really a divisive Christian fundamentalist group seeking to advance a regressive political agenda. The Family doesn’t represent an America that lives up to our country’s values. It represents an America that dangerously excludes huge numbers of us – religious minorities, the nonreligious, people of color, LGBTQ people and many more. 

“Assuming President Biden attends, we urge him to use this platform to convey a message that is inclusive of all Americans and lifts up what is best about our nation – our shared belief in freedom of religion, equality and the strengths of a diverse society.”

Biden did not endorse separation of church and state in his four minute and twenty-two second prayer breakfast speech, but he did come close.


Biden made general references to “faith,” but did not speak out of any specific religious tradition (with the exception of his quotation of Psalm 30:5). This was largely a speech about “faith” in America.

Compare Biden’s speech to Barack Obama’s message at the 2021 prayer breakfast. He speaks in this video at the 26:25 minute mark, but here is the transcript:

Good morning, everyone. For eight years I attended this breakfast as president. Today I’m thrilled to be here in a supporting role, more a member of the choir than the main attraction as we wait to hear from our new president, and a man of deep faith himself, president Joe Biden. But I’m honored to be asked to say a few words, especially because like so many Americans I have turned many times over the past year to my faith. The scripture tells us, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed. In many ways, Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a succinct encapsulation of life in 2020–a roiling pandemic, an economic crisis, nationwide protests over the enduring legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment, the widening gap between those who are doing well and those who are struggling, and an ongoing attack on our democracy and the very idea of truth. It’s a lot. And yet for all our afflictions, we are not crushed. For all that perplexes us, we are not driven to despair. Why is that? I believe the answer lies in our faith–in God, but also God’s will made manifest in the American story. It’s a faith rooted in the knowledge that we’ve been tested before and come out stronger. And while we may never achieve perfection, we can become more perfect. This deep and abiding faith in this country and the role that we have to play was articulated so eloquently by young Amanda Gorman in her inaugural poem last month. Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it is the past we step into and how we repair it. That’s who we are, and who we must be. So let us pray for our country, for our new president, and for all those who, while struck down, have not been destroyed. May we run with endurance the race set before us and may the Lord guide us on our journey. God bless all of you and God bless the United States of America.

Obama continues to be the master of American civil religion. Notice how he seamlessly moves from Paul’s encouragement to the Christian believers in Corinth to “God’s will made manifest in the American story.” He is much better at weaving Christianity and the American story.

I am not sure how Obama’s approach is any different from the way Mike Pence used the Bible during his vice-presidency. The only real difference is the vision of America to which the Bible is being applied.